Personal, p.2
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         Part #19 of Jack Reacher series by Lee Child

  The range had been exceptional. An apartment balcony fourteen hundred yards away had been identified as the rifleman’s hide. Fourteen hundred yards was more than three-quarters of a mile. The French president had been at an open-air podium behind wings of thick bulletproof glass. Some kind of a new improved material. No one had seen the shot except the president himself. He had seen an impossibly distant muzzle flash, small and high and far to his left, and then more than three whole perceptible seconds later a tiny white star had appeared on the glass, like a pale insect alighting. A long, long shot. But the glass had held, and the sound of the bullet’s impact against it had triggered an instant reaction, and the president had been buried under a scrum of security people. Later, enough bullet fragments had been found to guess at a .50-calibre armourpiercing round.

  I said, ‘I’m not on the list because I’m not good enough. Fourteen hundred yards is a very long way, against a head-sized target. The bullet is in the air three whole seconds. Like dropping a stone down a very deep well.’

  Casey Nice nodded and said, ‘The list is very short. Which is why the French are worried.’

  They hadn’t been worried immediately. That was clear. According to the summary report they had spent the first twenty-four hours congratulating themselves on having enforced such a distant perimeter, and on the quality of their bulletproof glass. Then reality had set in, and they had lit up the long-distance phones. Who knew a sniper that good?

  ‘Bullshit,’ I said.

  Casey Nice said, ‘What part?’

  ‘You don’t care about the French. Not this much. Maybe you would make some appropriate noises and get a couple of interns to write a term paper. But this thing crossed Tom O’Day’s desk. For five seconds, at least. Which makes it important. And then you had a SEAL on my ass inside twenty-eight minutes, and then you flew me across the continent in a private jet. Obviously both the SEAL and the jet were standing by, but equally obviously you had no idea where I was or when I would call, so you must have had a whole bunch of SEALs and a whole bunch of jets standing by, here, there and everywhere, all over the country, day and night. Just in case. And if it’s me, it’s others too. This is a full-court press.’

  ‘It would complicate things if it was an American shooter.’

  ‘Why would it be?’

  ‘We hope it isn’t.’

  ‘What can I do for you that’s worth a private jet?’

  Her phone rang in her pocket. She answered and listened and put it back. She said, ‘General O’Day will explain. He’s ready to see you now.’

  THREE

  CASEY NICE LED me to a room one floor up. The building was worn and the contents looked temporary. Which I was sure they were. A guy like O’Day moved around. A month here, a month there, in nondescript accommodations behind meaningless signs, like 47th Logistics, Tactical Support Command. In case someone was watching. Or because someone was watching, he would say. Someone was always watching. He had survived a long time.

  He was behind a desk, with Shoemaker in a chair off to one side, like a good second in command should be. Shoemaker had aged twenty years, which was to be expected, because it was twenty years since I had last seen him. He had put on weight, and his sandy hair had dulled down to sandy grey. His face was red and pouched. He was in ACU fatigues, with his star proudly displayed.

  O’Day had not aged at all. He still looked a hundred. He was wearing the same thing he had always worn, which was a faded black blazer over a V-neck sweater, which was also black, and which had been darned so many times there was more darn than sweater. Which led me to believe Mrs O’Day was still alive and well, because I couldn’t imagine anyone else taking up needle and yarn for him.

  His grey lantern jaw flapped up and down and he stared out at me with dead eyes under overhanging brows and he said, ‘It’s good to see you again, Reacher.’

  I said, ‘You’re lucky I didn’t have a pressing engagement. Or I’d be complaining.’

  He didn’t answer. I sat down, on a metal chair I guessed was navy issue, and Casey Nice sat down on a similar chair beside me.

  O’Day asked, ‘Did she tell you all this is secret?’

  I said, ‘Yes,’ and beside me Casey Nice nodded emphatically, as if very anxious to confirm she had followed her orders by so doing. O’Day had that effect on people.

  He asked me, ‘Did you see the summary report?’

  I said, ‘Yes,’ and Casey Nice nodded again.

  He said, ‘What do you make of it?’

  I said, ‘I think the guy’s a good shooter.’

  ‘So do I,’ O’Day said. ‘Has to be, to sell a guaranteed one-forone at fourteen hundred yards.’

  Which was typical of O’Day. Socratic, they call it in college. All kinds of back and forth, designed to elicit truths implicitly known by all rational beings. I said, ‘It wasn’t a guaranteed one-for-one. It was a guaranteed two-for-two. The first round was supposed to break the glass. The second round was supposed to kill the guy. The first bullet was always going to shatter. Or deflect, best case. He was ready to fire again, if the glass had broken. A split-second yes-or-no decision. Fire again, or walk away. Which is impressive. Was it an armour-piercing round?’

  O’Day nodded. ‘They put the fragments in a gas chromatograph.’

  ‘Do we have that kind of glass for our president?’

  ‘We will by tomorrow.’

  ‘Was it fifty-calibre?’

  ‘They collected enough weight to make it likely.’

  ‘Which all makes it more than impressive. That’s a big ugly rifle.’

  ‘Which has been known to hit at a mile out. A mile and a half, once, in Afghanistan. So maybe fourteen hundred yards isn’t such a big deal.’

  Socratic.

  I said, ‘I think hitting twice at fourteen hundred yards is harder than hitting once at a mile or more. It’s all about repeatability. I think this guy has talent.’

  ‘So do I,’ O’Day said. ‘Do you think he’s been in the service somewhere?’

  ‘Of course he has. No other way to get that good.’

  ‘Do you think he’s still in the service somewhere?’

  ‘No. He would have no freedom of movement.’

  ‘I agree.’

  I said, ‘Are we sure he was selling?’

  ‘What are the odds a citizen with a grievance was also once upon a time a world-class sniper? More likely the citizen with a grievance has spent some money on the open market. Maybe a small group of citizens with a grievance. A faction, in other words. Which would increase the spending potential.’

  ‘Why do we care? The target was French.’

  ‘The bullet was American.’

  ‘How do we know?’

  ‘The gas chromatograph. There was an agreement. Some years ago. Not widely publicized. Not publicized at all, actually. Every manufacturer blends the alloy differently. Only slightly. But enough. Like a signature.’

  ‘Lots of the world buys American.’

  ‘This guy is new on the scene, Reacher. This profile has never been seen before. This was his first job. He’s making his name here. And it’s a hell of an ask. He has to hit twice, and fast, with a fifty-calibre cannon from fourteen hundred yards. If he makes it, he’s in the major leagues for the rest of his life. If he misses, he’s bush league for ever. That’s too big of a gamble. The stakes are way too high. But he shoots anyway. Which means he knew he was going to hit. He had to know. For certain, twice, at fourteen hundred yards, with total confidence. How many snipers that good are there?’

  Which was a very good question. I said, ‘Honestly? For us? That good? I think in every generation we’d be lucky to have one in the SEALs, and two in the Marines, and two in the army. Total of five in the service at any one time.’

  ‘But you just agreed he isn’t in the service.’

  ‘Plus therefore an additional matching five from the previous generation, not long retired, old enough to be at loose ends, but still young enough to functio
n. Which is who you should be looking at.’

  ‘Those would be your candidates? The previous generation?’

  ‘I don’t see who else would qualify.’

  ‘How many significant countries are there, in that line of work?’

  ‘Maybe five of us.’

  ‘Times an average of five eligible candidates in each country is twenty-five shooters in the world. Agreed?’

  ‘Ballpark.’

  ‘More than ballpark, actually. Twenty-five happens to be the exact dead-on number of retired elite snipers known to intelligence communities around the world. Do you think their governments keep careful track of them?’

  ‘I’m sure they do.’

  ‘And therefore how many of them do you think would turn out to have rock-solid alibis on any random day?’

  Given that they would be surveilled very carefully, I said, ‘Twenty?’

  ‘Twenty-one,’ O’Day said. ‘We’re down to four guys. And that’s the diplomatic problem here. We’re like four guys in a room, all staring at each other. I don’t need that bullet to be American.’

  ‘One of ours is not accounted for?’

  ‘Not completely.’

  ‘Who?’

  ‘How many snipers that good do you know?’

  ‘None,’ I said. ‘I don’t hang out with snipers.’

  ‘How many did you ever know?’

  ‘One,’ I said. ‘But it’s obviously not him.’

  ‘And you know this because?’

  ‘He’s in prison.’

  ‘And you know this because?’

  ‘I put him there.’

  ‘He got a fifteen-year sentence, correct?’

  ‘As I recall,’ I said.

  ‘When?’

  Socratic. I did the math in my head. A lot of years. A lot of water over the dam. A lot of different places, a lot of different people. I said, ‘Shit.’

  O’Day nodded.

  ‘Sixteen years ago,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t time fly, when you’re having fun?’

  ‘He’s out?’

  ‘He’s been out for a year.’

  ‘Where is he?’

  ‘Not at home.’

  FOUR

  JOHN KOTT WAS the first son of two Czech emigrants who escaped the old Communist regime and settled in Arkansas. He had a kind of wiry Iron Curtain look that blended well with the local hardscrabble youth, and he grew up as one of them. Apart from his name and his cheekbones he could have been a cousin going back hundreds of years. At sixteen he could shoot squirrels out of trees too far away for most folks to see. At seventeen he killed his parents. At least, the county sheriff thought he did. There was no actual proof, but there was plenty of suspicion. None of which seemed to matter much, a year later, to the army recruiter who signed him up.

  Unusually for a thin wiry guy he was immensely calm and still. He could drop his heart rate to the low thirties, and he could lie inert for many hours. He had superhuman eyesight. In other words, he was a born sniper. Even the army recognized it. He was sent to a succession of specialist schools, and then he was funnelled straight to Delta. Where he matched his talents with unrelenting hard work and made himself a star, in a shadowy, black-ops kind of a way.

  But unusually for a Special Forces soldier the seal between the on-duty part of his head and the off-duty part was not 100 per cent watertight. To drop a guy at a thousand yards needs more than talent and athletic ability. It needs permission, from deep down in the ancient part of the brain, where fundamental inhibitions are either enforced or relaxed. It needs the shooter to really, really, truly believe: This is OK. This is your enemy. You’re better than him. You’re the best in the world. Anyone who challenges you deserves to die. Most guys have an off switch. But Kott’s didn’t close all the way.

  I met him three weeks after a guy was found with his throat cut, in the weeds behind a faraway bar in Colombia, South America. The dead guy was a U.S. Army sergeant, from the Rangers. The bar was a hangout for a CIA-directed Special Forces unit, who were using it for downtime when they weren’t out in the jungle, shooting cartel members. Which made the suspect pool both very small and completely silent. I was with the 99th MP at the time, and I got the job. Only because the dead guy was American military. A local civilian, the Pentagon would have saved the airfare.

  No one talked, but they all said plenty. I knew who had been in the bar, and I made them all describe it, and they all told me some little thing. I built up a picture. One guy was doing this, another guy was doing that. This guy left at eleven, that guy left at midnight. The other guy was sitting next to the first guy, who was drinking rum not beer. And so on and so forth. I got the choreography straight in my head, and I revised it over and over until it ran smooth and coherent.

  Except for Kott, who was nothing more than a hole in the air.

  No one had said anything much about him. Not where he was sitting, or what he was doing, or who he was talking to. He was more or less completely undescribed. Which could be for a number of reasons, one of which was, just possibly, that although no one in his unit was going to actively rat him out, no one was going to make stuff up for him, either. Some kind of ethics. Or lack of imagination. A wise choice, either way. Invention always unravels. Better to say nothing. As in, just possibly, hypothetically, a long fierce argument with the dead guy might become … nothing. Just a hole in the air.

  It was a weak case, involving a lot of circular theory and a star player and a clandestine operation, but to its credit the army looked at it. And quite correctly said we were going nowhere without a confession.

  They let me bring Kott in.

  Most of asking questions is listening to the answers, and I listened to Kott for a good long time before I concluded that deep down the guy had an arrogant streak as wide as his head. And as hard. He wasn’t making the distinction. Anyone who challenges you deserves to die is battlefield bullshit, not a way to live.

  But I had known people like that all my life. I was the product of people like that. They want to tell you about it. They want you to understand. They want you to approve. OK, so maybe some stupid temporary pettifogging regulation was technically against them at one point, but they were more important than that. Weren’t they? Right?

  I let him talk, and then I backed him up and pretty much made him admit that, yes, at one point he was talking to the dead guy. After which it was downhill all the way. Although an uphill metaphor would be better. The process felt like lighting a fire under a kettle, or pumping a bicycle tyre.

  Two hours later he was signing a long and detailed account. The dead guy had called him a pussy, basically. That was the bottom line. Trash talk, that had then gotten completely out of hand. Some response was called for. Some things couldn’t be excused. Could they? Right?

  Because he was a star player and it was a clandestine operation they gave him a plea deal. Some variant of murder two for fifteen years. I was fine with it. Because there was no court martial I snuck the extra week in Fiji and met an Australian girl I still remember. I wasn’t about to complain.

  O’Day said, ‘We shouldn’t make unexamined assumptions. There’s no evidence he ever even looked at a gun again.’

  ‘But he’s on the list?’

  ‘He has to be.’

  ‘What would be the odds?’

  ‘One in four, obviously.’

  ‘Would you put your money on?’

  ‘I’m not saying he’s our boy. I’m saying we have to face the fact there’s a one-in-four possibility he might be.’

  ‘Who else is on the list?’

  ‘One Russian, one Israeli, one Brit.’

  I said, ‘Kott’s been in prison fifteen years.’

  O’Day nodded and said, ‘Let’s start with what that would do to him.’

  Which was another very good question. What exactly would fifteen years in prison do to a sniper? Good shooting is about a lot of different things. Muscle control might suffer. Good shooting is about being soft and hard at the sam
e time. Soft enough to keep tiny jitters out, hard enough to control a violent explosion. General athletic condition might suffer, which was important too, because a low heart rate and good breathing were all part of the deal.

  But in the end I said, ‘Eyesight.’

  O’Day said, ‘Because?’

  ‘Everything he’s seen for fifteen years has been pretty close. Walls, basically. Even the exercise yard. His eyes haven’t focused long since he was a young man.’ Which all sounded good to me. I liked the mental image. Kott, gone soft, maybe a little trembly now, wearing glasses, stooping
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